The Wired Teen

A new study documents the embrace of the Internet by Canadian kids -- and lifts the veil on how they use it

Sue Ferguson

The boy at the centre of Canada's latest teen hacker drama was almost too perfect a stereotype. Just one month after police in Montreal arrested accused cyber-vandal Mafiaboy, another Montreal computer whiz-kid known as Jon pleaded guilty last week to playing havoc with data systems at NASA, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The 17-year-old former boy scout revealed in court that since quitting school two years ago, he had spent up to 15 hours a day on the Internet on his home computer. Jon, who was sentenced to 240 hours of community work, fuels a popular image: the teenage loner who takes refuge in cyberspace, unable to resist the allure of the Net's nefarious subcultures. But is he representative of Canada's teen Internet users? The answer, according to a new survey on young people and the Internet, is emphatically, no. In fact, the study found that kids aged 12 to 17 who regularly go online are pretty normal -- they hold a broad range of interests, play sports, listen to the radio, read magazines and value friendships. As well, they say they use the Net for relatively harmless purposes like chatting with other kids, getting the scoop on their favourite celebrities and doing their homework.

Parents should breathe a sigh of relief at that profile -- since chances are their teen spends a lot of spare time surfing the Web. According to the survey, designed by Northstar Research Partners for Youth Culture Inc., a Toronto-based media and research firm, a full 85 per cent of Canada's teenagers are wired, three-quarters of them at home. That's a hefty figure -- about double the proportion of Canadian households that use the Internet. On average, says the poll -- entitled "Youth Culture's report on the Net generation" -- boys go online for more than 10 hours a week, girls for eight hours.

But far from isolating kids in a cyber-netherworld, the Net has become a tool for expanding and enhancing most young people's social connections. Instant messaging services like icq (for "I seek you," found at allow users to get around the limitations of both telephone and e-mail with a chat room-like format in which numerous people congregate. Emma McDermott, an outgoing 14-year-old with a penchant for acting, got wired as a Christmas gift last year. "Of course, the first month you're hooked," says the Toronto student. "I was in the chat rooms, like, three hours a day. It's craziness." While the novelty wore off, Emma still spends about 20 hours a week online, most of it on icq.

Instant messaging programs differ from chat-room Web sites in that users exercise more control over who they communicate with by creating personalized chat lists. While many teens enjoy chatting with strangers, a surprising number simply want to talk to their friends. Three-quarters of Emma's icq list covers people she knows. As for meeting new people, she believes the Internet is a great equalizer: "Everyone's on the same level and no one can be cooler than the next person."

That does not stop parents from worrying about what sorts of sites their children may happen upon. A full 73 per cent of parents of teenagers believe the Internet should be more heavily monitored. Intriguingly, so do 51 per cent of teens -- though monitored not by their parents, but by someone Out There. Marilyn Tiller, a Halifax mother of three, says she trusts her children to be responsible and talks to them about her concerns. Still, she installed the program Cyber Patrol, which blocks access to offensive sites. "I've been mindful of media since they were infants," she says. "Kids can become desensitized to violence or pornography." Vancouver couple Judith Ince and Richard McMahon prefer simply to try to help their kids Paul, 16, Laura, 14, and Allison, 12, learn to make smart decisions for themselves. "I think that values are really what's going to protect them more than any censorship," says McMahon. In any case, Ince adds, "you can get pornography at the 7-Eleven, violent videos at Blockbuster or on TV. If my kids do find that stuff on the Net -- and it wouldn't surprise me if they have -- then they're going to be able to cope with it." And they probably have: according to the survey, 56 per cent of teens said they knew people who visit sites their parents would disapprove of. Yet many teens, it appears, do manage to cope easily. When Allison accidentally clicks on an offensive site, she simply closes it. "Then I go back and block it out," she says, using a function in her Microsoft Windows software. And if someone mistakenly admits an undesirable person into an icq chat? Adam Ing, a Toronto 12-year-old, says: "I just hit Ignore." Clicking Ignore lets Adam block intruders' comments -- a simple but effective form of online shunning.

Moreover, the image of teens wandering aimlessly around the Web, tripping onto sinister sites and bumping into shady characters, may be misleading. Outside of socializing through e-mail, icq and chat rooms, the Youth Culture survey found that doing homework is the single most popular reason teens identify for going online. In this, they are remarkably similar to their parents, most of whom cite research as their primary activity.

The Internet also offers young people a chance to express themselves in an uncensored environment. "It gives teens a voice," observes Patrick Thoburn, director of Internet strategy at Youth Culture. "It is the only medium to do that." Many teen sites involve kids in submitting poetry, writing book or movie reviews, or commenting about issues such as school uniforms, the Columbine shootings or their favourite TV show. And some, like Adam Ing, take this a step further by constructing their own home pages, a skill he picked up at summer camp.

This creative, two-way relationship with the Net may be behind one of the survey's most surprising findings: teens who use it are about as likely to click on the Net as they are to flick on the TV. While they tend to perceive television as relaxing, they also complain it can be a waste of time. Young people think of the Net, on the other hand, as a trendsetting medium that offers plenty of amusement. "The Net is more interactive," says Emma McDermott. "You can't talk at the TV and expect it to respond."

But teens are not simply dupes of Internet hype. Allison McMahon thinks the content is "sometimes repetitive." And the sheer volume of information leads to frustrations, especially when researching a homework topic. Allison's brother Paul prefers to go to the library because "the information on the Net isn't always reliable."

Similarly, teens have not abandoned more traditional media. Emma loves to read books and teen magazines. The Net, she says, "shows you enough to entice you, but then you have to buy something. With a magazine, it's right there, it's colourful, you can flip it, you can touch it." She also cuts pictures out for her bedroom walls and school agenda. That way, she says, "you can share it with your friends."

To Sean Saraq, Youth Culture's 35-year-old director of consumer intelligence, teens are not intimidated by the Net, as adults may be. Kids relate to the Web "not as technology, but as an appliance," he says. Moreover, his colleague Thoburn, 31, believes young people's identification with the Net is not just a phase they will outgrow. Rather, it represents a true generational shift. With the teen population -- largely the "echo" children of the baby boomers -- increasing 10 per cent faster than Canadians overall, businesses face a challenge. Currently, television swallows up 40 per cent of the approximately $11 billion Canadian companies spend on advertising. Only a fraction of a per cent, Saraq estimates, makes it to the Net. If advertisers want to reach teens -- and they do -- they need to radically rethink their habits, he says.

The same goes for purchases online. Teens browse the Net to find out information about products, but only about 10 per cent have actually purchased something. Teens don't buy much online for a variety of reasons, the survey shows, including lack of access to a credit card, fears about giving out confidential information over the Net and a simple preference for shopping in person. "It's just a lot easier going to the mall," says Tom Clarke, a Toronto 12-year-old. "You go with all your friends. You're not just sitting at home." Kids, it seems, are still kids -- on and off the Net.

History lesson

Worried about what your child is looking at on the Net? As those familiar with Web browsers know, there is a simple way to check unobtrusively. In Internet Explorer, the default browser for Windows PCs, it is called History. Under that menu item, Explorer neatly lists all the sites it has visited, organized by day, up to a user-set limit (maximum 999 days). Rival Netscape's Go function is less complete, but still useful. Kids often ignore the feature. But they can, of course, delete items from the list if they want to cover their tracks.

Weekly time online

Shopping the Web

Browse or get product information Have bought something

We're not geeks

What Net teens say they do in their spare time (unprompted answers):